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Acting Israel Leader Olmert Backs Establishment of Palestinian State

By Greg Myre
THE NEW YORK TIMES


JERUSALEM

In his first major policy address since becoming Israel’s acting prime minister, Ehud Olmert said Tuesday that he backed the creation of a Palestinian state, and that Israel would have to relinquish parts of the West Bank to maintain its Jewish majority.

“We support the establishment of a modern, democratic Palestinian state,” Olmert said at the annual Herzliya Conference near Tel Aviv, which has become a forum for important speeches by Israeli leaders. “The existence of two nations, one Jewish and one Palestinian, is the full solution to the national aspirations and problems of each of the peoples.”

He said he was following the path set down by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who suffered a severe stroke on Jan. 4 and remains in a coma.

In his remarks, Olmert said the biggest challenge facing Israel was defining the country’s permanent borders in ways that assured a continued Jewish majority. While maintaining that the West Bank is part of “our historic homeland,” he said demographic realities required handing back parts of the territories, which Israel captured during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

“The choice between allowing Jews to live in all parts of the land of Israel and living in a state with a Jewish majority mandates giving up parts of the land of Israel,” he said. “We will not be able to continue ruling over the territories in which the majority of the Palestinian population lives.”

Olmert did not offer new proposals, but said this was an opportune moment to revive peacemaking efforts, with the Palestinians holding parliamentary elections on Wednesday and with Israel holding its legislative elections on March 28.

“The elections tomorrow in the Palestinian Authority are a historic opportunity for the Palestinians to take a giant step toward realizing their goal to achieve national independence,” he said. But he added, “The key to moving the political process forward is for the Palestinians to abandon the path of terror.”

The elections could complicate peace efforts, however. The radical Islamic faction Hamas, which has waged a suicide bombing campaign against Israel, is poised to make a strong showing, and Israel and Hamas have always refused to deal with each other.

Like Sharon, Olmert said he would be guided by the road map, the international peace plan that was introduced in the summer of 2003 but immediately stalled.

Neither side has met its requirements in the first stage of the plan, which has three stages and ultimately calls for a comprehensive peace agreement and a Palestinian state. Still, Olmert cited the rarely mentioned second stage, which would allow for a Palestinian state with temporary borders.

The Palestinians could have a state “even before all the complicated issues connected to a final agreement are resolved,” he noted.

The Palestinians have generally opposed interim measures, and prefer to focus on final-status issues. The Palestinian leadership seeks a state in all of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, with a capital in East Jerusalem.